Soaring is an extraordinary form of engineless flight (free flight.) In the summer months, convection of the atmosphere produces large motion of the air (thermals) which moves the warm air from the surface to the cooler thermal reservoir at higher altitudes. It is not unusual in the Sierra for the thermals to reach over 18,000'. By circling in the rising air (lift) and flying quickly through the downdrafts (sink), it is possible to remain aloft all day and cover hundreds of kilometers.
In the winter months, high speed winds over the Sierra escarpment can produce an incredible form of lift called mountain lee wave. This lift is aligned parallel to the mountain range and can extend to very high altitude. This effect can produce glassy smooth and very rapid lift (>1km/min) above the ridge height, and the most extreme turbulence known below the ridge; gliders have been destroyed in this turbulence with loads exceeding 10g's. Glider pilots have used this lift to achieve altitudes of 49,000' in the Owens Valley. "Flying the wave" is an opportunity to experience the raw and unforgiving power of nature, and is extremely interesting and challenging.
Video above: 15,000' over the Sierra, late afternoon, heading south to Mt. Whitney (July 2020). The videos have been taken with a GoPro Hero 8 attached to the horizontal stabilizer.
Modern gliders are very beautiful and extremely efficient. Glide ratio of 40-50:1 are typical (flying 40-50km forward for every 1km of descent.) Photo above is N303DG over the White Mountains, with a wingspan of 15m, a best glide of 42:1, and an empty weight of 270kg .
Photo taken after flight to 36,630', using A-14 pressure-demand oxygen regulator and MBU-20/p mask. Temperatures were -70F, pressure of 0.22 bar, wind speeds of 100kts. This was the highest altitude glider flight in the US in ~20 years. (17 Dec 2020, Inyokern CA)
Longer film, starting near Mt. Cedric Wright, heading south along the spine of the Sierra to Mt. Whitney (July 2020).
Flying near the terrain around the Whitney Portal (June 2020.) This particular day the temperature profile of the atmosphere limited the height of the convection, making it difficult to get on top the terrain. There was air heated by the sun, moving up the slopes (anabatic flow), and I was able to use this flow to maintain altitude and fly forward 55mi (with a lot of care.) Later in the afternoon, cooler air arrived and the convection reached ~15,000', making the glide back to Inyokern easy.
Heading north to White Mountain peak, past the research station. The Whites form the north east boundary of the Owens Valley and are fantastic generators of lift.
N303DG at Inyokern (KIYK).
I have had a lot of fun taking Caltech students on flights in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. If you would like to fly, send me an email and we can find a time to go. Its really fun and interesting.
If you are interested to learn how to fly a glider, a great place to learn is the Southern California Soaring Academy. This is where I studied and I found the instruction to be excellent. This location can offer experiences in the deserts and mountains with all forms of lift: thermals, ridge, wave, and convergences.